Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Christmas Stories

Yes, "stories" plural.

When thinking about Christmas as the traditional celebration of the birth of Jesus (and not a marketing ploy), Christians should remember that two of the four gospels make no mention whatsoever of the birth of Jesus, and the other two gospels tell stories that are not just different, but actually conflicting.

A traditional Christmas celebration will include readings from both Luke and Matthew, and mix them together, but let's take a look at what the Bible actually says.

In the book of Luke, Mary and Joseph start in the town of Nazareth, but then must go to the town of Bethlehem in order to comply with a census supposedly ordered by Caesar Augustus (for which there is no historical evidence whatsoever). There is no room at the inn so Mary gives birth to Jesus in the stable. Shepherds are told of the birth of Jesus by angels and they come to the stable to see the baby Jesus. Mary and Joseph travel to Jerusalem with Jesus, and then eventually return to Nazareth. No mention of any wise men from the east, no star over Bethlehem, no slaughter of male babies, and no trip to Egypt.

In the book of Matthew, the story is quite different. Mary and Joseph seem to be living in Bethelem already (i.e., no census by Caesar Augustus) and Jesus is born in their home. No mention of any stable, manger, or shepherds. Instead, wise men come from the east, follow a rising star to Bethlehem, and offer gifts to Jesus. Then Mary, Joseph, and Jesus flee to Egypt when Herod orders the death of all children in or around Bethlehem that are two years of age or younger, another seemingly noteworthy event for which there is no other historical evidence. After Herod dies, Mary and Joseph return to Israel, but are still afraid to return to Bethlehem in Judea, and instead settle in Nazareth in Galilea, where they have apparently never lived before.

It is also remarkable that the gospels of Luke and Matthew tell these stories once and then never mention them again. Jesus himself never refers to his own birth, and he is never asked about it, which seems strange given the unusual (to say the least) circumstances of his birth. And there is no mention of the birth of Jesus in the book of Acts, any of the letters of Paul, or any other part of the New Testament.

Finally, we have to confront the fact that the authors of both Luke and Matthew wanted Jesus to be born in Bethlehem in order to fulfill a prophecy, but that he should be "from" Nazareth in order to fulfill another prophesy. So it appears that each of the authors constructed a story to explain why Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and they constructed different stories. The authors also had very different goals for their stories, because Matthew describes Jesus as royalty, descended from King David, sought after by wise men from the east, and seen as a threat by King Herod, while Luke describes a lowly birth in a stable noticed only by angels and shepherds.

What are we to make of all this? Two conclusions seem unavoidable.

The first conclusion is that the stories of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke cannot be considered factual. They contradict each other, so they can't both be accurate, and there are too many problems with them to believe that either is historically accurate.

The second conclusion is that the stories of the birth of Jesus are not very important to Christianity as a faith, and so whether you want to believe or disbelieve the stories is also not very important. You can be a "good Christian" (whatever that might mean) whether you choose to believe the story in Luke, or the story in Matthew, both of them, or neither of them.

The corollary to these conclusions is that, once we have stripped the stories of any historical or theological significance, we can have fun with them. We can transform the wise men of the Bible into three kings, and we can make up names for them, such as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. We can construct scenes in which the three kings from Matthew are mixed in with the shepherds and manger from Luke. We can write songs about lame shepherds (Amahl) and little drummer boys.

All good fun. And isn't that what Christmas is all about?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Meaning of Life

Yes, I know the meaning of life.

It came to me one night as I was thinking about the pain of relationships, and why we have to suffer from self-doubt and embarrassment, and what is the point of having to struggle for happiness.

And then it occurred to me that the struggle was the whole point. Not because we are supposed to struggle and prevail, or because we are supposed to struggle and lose, but we are supposed to experience the struggle.

In Conversations with God, Neale Donald Walsch expresses his own view of the purpose of creation. In his version of Genesis, there was nothing but God in the beginning, and God created a physical reality and people within that reality so that there would be something that is not God. God could not see or appreciate His/Her/Its own divinity until there was something that was not divine against which to compare God. There is a difference between merely knowing something and actually experiencing it, and God wanted the fullness of experiencing Itself. Walsch reports this explanation from God:
[T]he All of Everything chose to know Itself experientially. ... It reasoned, quite correctly, that any portion of Itself would necessarily have to be less than the whole, and that if It thus simply divided itself into portions, each portion, being less than the whole, could look back on the rest of Itself and see magnificence.
Hinduism has a similar view of creation, beginning with a One which is alone and finds no joy in being alone and so fragments Itself into millions of little pieces which then proceed to play a game of hide-and-seek with each other. The fragmentation and diversity of creation is a kind of game that God plays with Itself.

A Course in Miracles says that we each share a part of the mind of God. Quakers talk about "the Light within" each person.

All of these expressions point to the same conclusion, which is that we straddle the line between what is God and what is not God. We experience both the love and joy and communion that is God and the fear and sorrow and loneliness that is not God. It is the experience of both that makes us human.

And we can't choose between them or embrace one and exclude the other. There is no such thing as joy if there is no sorrow, and there is no such thing as love if there is no fear or anger. There is no peace if there is no pain. We must be able to experience what is not God in order to know and appreciate what is God. The purpose of our lives is to experience both so that, through us, God may know just how wonderful God is.

Life is, as is often said, all about the journey, and not about the destination. Once we trust in God and accept the assurances of Jesus that our destinations will all be the same regardless of what path we take, we can stop worrying and take the time to appreciate just how marvelous it all is.

Which is our function, after all.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The "Peace Tax"

I have already explained why I do not agree with the idea of war tax resistance. Many people who support the idea of war tax resistance also support an idea that has been called the "peace tax," and now I am led to explain why I don't agree with the "peace tax" either.

The form of the "peace tax" that is currently before Congress is H.R. 1921, the "Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act." Skipping over findings and definitions, we find the guts of the act in section 4, which states in subsection a that:
The Secretary of the Treasury shall establish an account in the Treasury of the United States to be known as the 'Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund', for the deposit of income, gift, and estate taxes paid by or on behalf of taxpayers who are designated conscientious objectors.

And in subsection b that:
Monies deposited in the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund shall be allocated annually to any appropriation not for a military purpose.

How could anyone object to that? Conscientious objectors get to pay their taxes into a special fund that is used only for non-military purposes, and so get to pay their taxes without contributing to wars. It's a win-win, right?

Actually, it's more like a nothing-nothing. It's nothing but a bookkeeping gimmick that divides tax receipts into two piles, and then allocates expenses between the two piles, but (and here's the important part) the expenses haven't changed. It is clear from the statutory language quoted above that the "Religious Peace Tax Fund" will only be spent on appropriations already approved by Congress and will not increase any non-military spending. The money that passes through the peace tax fund for non-military spending will simply be offset by an increase in the amounts for military spending from other tax funds. So military spending remains the same, and non-military spending remains the same. The path that the monies might take might change, and things might look different on paper, but the end of the path is the same and nothing has changed in reality.

The only way the proposed statute might have any real-world impact is if so many taxpayers directed money to the peace tax fund that there wasn't enough tax money to pay for military appropriations, but there are at least two reasons to believe that will never happen:

First, the number of taxpayers who are likely to direct their tax dollars to the peace tax fund, and the number of dollars directed to that fund, is never going to be large enough to impact the federal budget. According to the figures supplied by the IRS in the instructions to Form 1040 for 2007, in fiscal year 2006 military spending was 23% of the federal budget, while the personal income tax was 39% of the federal budget. The gift tax and estate tax (which are the other two taxes affected by HR 1921) are usually reported to be no more than 2% of the federal budget, so let's assume that 41% of the federal budget could be directed to the peace tax fund. Even if a majority of taxpayers directed that a majority of the income, gift, and estate taxes should go to the peace tax fund, there would still be enough of those taxes (half of 41%, or 20% of the budget), together with the corporate income tax (13% of the budget) to pay for military spending (23% of the budget). But if a majority of the taxpayers were that strongly opposed to military spending, that majority could simply elect a new Congress and actually reduce military spending instead of going through the charade of the "peace tax."

Second, even if enough taxpayers directed money into the peace tax fund to cause some kind of a spending problem for the military, there is nothing in the act that would prevent the Treasury from "borrowing" from the peace tax fund to pay for military spending, just as money is now "borrowed" from the Social Security Trust Fund to pay expenses unrelated to Social Security.

So the peace tax fund will never have any effect whatsoever on military spending, and does no good. And I believe that it will do us moral and spiritual harm.

It harms us because it dulls the pain of war. It would allow us to think that war is no longer our responsibility because we didn't vote for the politicians who sent us to war and because it's no longer "our" tax dollars paying for the war. But it is our responsibility. It is our government, and our responsibility, and we can't wash our hands (as Pontius Pilate did) and absolve ourselves through a bookkeeping gimmick.

If the Peace Testimony means anything, it means that we change our behavior, and not just our accounting methods.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Metaphors Redux

Years ago, in a message entitled "The Finger or the Moon," I wrote about how the words we use for God and our spiritual experiences are only metaphors for the experiences themselves. I was reminded of that recently, while reading The Hidden Gospel by Neil Douglas-Klotz, Ph.D.

According to Dr. Douglas-Klotz, the Aramaic word that Jesus would have used for "God" was Allaha, which is very similar to the Arabic (and Islamic) Allah, both of which can be translated as "Sacred Unity."

And here's where I see a problem: Our word for God is not Aramaic or Arabic, but Germanic, based on the German word Gott. Like the Greek word theos, Gott was originally used to describe an anthropomorphic deity. Odin (a Germanic god) and Zeus (a Greek god) were both depicted in human terms, with human appearances and human emotions, even though possessing supernatural powers. That is the image of "God" that I had in childhood, and it is the idea of "God" that I now reject.

Somehow, we have received the Judaic and Aramaic concepts of the divine spirit that unifies the world through the "lens" (or "filter") of Greek and Germanic language and thought. By contrast, Islam seems to have preserved its purity, maintaining a concept of Allah that cannot be reduced (or limited) to any image or other worldly metaphor, much as Taoism continues to speak of "the Tao" as something that is ultimately indescribable. (The very first line of the Tao te Ching declares that "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.")

Quakers talk about "the Inner Light" and "the Divine" as things that unite us, and that is the way I like to think now. There is a logic or force or principle in the world that is ultimately unknowable, and yet intimately connected to us all, and comforting. That is what I mean what I say "God."

Friday, January 18, 2008

Quaker Jargon

Soon after I began attending Quaker meetings, I became aware that Quakers have their own meanings for some words and phrases that are different from the meanings used by non-Quakers. That kind of jargon frequently appears in cultural or vocational groups, and can serve an number of different purposes.

One possible purpose of jargon is to act as a shibboleth, or a way of distinguishing the "insiders" from the "outsiders." Although early English Quakers consciously adopted manners of "plain dress" and "plain speech" that distinguished them from other segments of English society, those manners arose out of spiritual concerns (the Testimony of Simplicity) and not out of a desire for separation. And I have found that Quakers are always willing to explain unusual words and phrases, and want people to understand the language they use, so the separation seems to be more of an undesirable side-effect than a goal.

Another possible purpose of jargon is to reduce the number of words needed to communicate complicated ideas by assigning a special or more specific meaning to those words. For example, a lawyer practicing in my area of law (trusts and estates) might refer to a "QTIP trust," which I would understand to be a trust for the benefit of a surviving spouse that qualifies for the federal estate tax marital deduction through a provision in the Internal Revenue Code for "qualified terminable interest property" ("QTIP"). That's a lot of meaning to pack into one abbreviation. And the primary purpose of most Quaker jargon is to pack more meaning into fewer words.

The following are some common Quaker expressions (in no particular order) that I think provide some insight into Quaker ways of thinking and the refinements of meaning that seem to be important to Quakers. This is not intended to be definitive or comprehensive, but just a point of view from this (fairly) recently convinced Quaker.
  • Meeting. This word is used in at least four different ways. It can be used in its usual sense, meaning any gathering of people (as in "there was a meeting of the committee last night"). It can also mean a Quaker worship service (i.e., a meeting for worship). It can also be used to refer to those Quakers who are gathered in worship (i.e., what other faiths might call the congregation), or to a group of Quakers as an organizational entity (i.e., what other faiths might call a church).
  • Leading. Short for "leading of the Spirit," it can be used to describe any spirit-led desire for any action or resolution. A leading might (or might not) result in a ministry or a witness.
  • Discernment. A spiritual decision. Specifically, the spiritual process by which leadings are determined. (What might look like a "decision" to other people becomes a "discernment" to Quakers.)
  • Concern. Something that is troubling to the spirit. It might be as big as world hunger, or as small as the size of the meeting's electric bill. Through discernment, a concern might (or might not) become a leading.
  • Ministry. This word can be used to describe almost any kind of faith-based service, but is usually reserved for regular or recognized service to the spiritual needs of others. So, for example, a commitment to regularly visit other Quakers in nursing-homes might be recognized as a ministry.
  • Vocal Ministry. The ministry that occurs when Quakers spontaneously rise to deliver messages during meeting for worship.
  • Witness. Can be used as both a noun and a verb to describe any action that is an expression of faith. So, for example, a refusal to be drafted into the armed forces, or a refusal to pay taxes to support the military, might be described as a "witness" or as "witnessing." See also, testimony.
  • Testimonies. Quaker "testimonies" are not words, but actions. So, for example, the Peace Testimony is not a form of words, but the act of living without violence.
  • Notion. A somewhat derisive term applied to an idea or belief that has no importance to the speaker, such as a theological concept with no apparent worldly consequences. A question about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is definitely a "notion," and questions about the divinity of Jesus might also be considered "notions" to some Quakers.
  • Inner Light. The "that of God" that Quakers believe is in everyone.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Purpose of Forgiveness

In a previous post, on "doing the right thing," I proposed that the reason we should follow the teachings of Jesus, and God's laws generally, is not for any reward in an after-life, or any material reward here on earth, but in order to achieve an immediate spiritual reward or spiritual peace. Today, I want to talk more specifically about the purpose of one of Jesus's more challenging commandments, that we forgive one another.

The doctrine of forgiveness shows up in a lot of different places, and in a lot of different ways. It is explicit in the Lord's Prayer, but it is also inherent in the commandments that we love our neighbors as ourselves, that we love our enemies, and that we not judge others, because you can't love someone without also forgiving them, and you can't forgive someone while also judging them. Forgiveness is also central to the Quaker "Peace Testimony," which is not just about rejecting violence but also about rejecting hate, anger, resentment, greed, and other emotions that lead to violence.

But why are we to forgive one another? What is the purpose, and what is achieved?

When I hear others speak about forgiveness, it almost always sounds like something we are supposed to do for the benefit of the person forgiven. In other words, it is just a variation on the "be nice to others" theme. But why are we to be nice to others?

Forgiveness is also sometimes advocated (and criticized) because the "world will be a better place" if everyone did it. This is something I often hear from skeptics about the Quaker "Peace Testimony," which is that I am under the delusion that, if I stop fighting then my enemy will stop fighting, and if I disarm then my enemy will also disarm. But that is not what I believe at all.

Along the same lines, forgiveness is also sometimes presented as a matter of self-interest, based on the belief that, if we forgive, we will also be forgiven. This seems like a natural conclusion for statements such as "Judge not, that ye not be judged," and the "Golden Rule," which allows at least the implication that if we treat others as we would like to be treated, they might do the same.

All of these things might be ancillary results of forgiveness, but are not the central purpose of forgiveness, which I believe is our own spiritual peace, which I call "salvation."

Anger, resentment, and judgments are spiritual burdens, and angry, resentful, and judgmental people are unhappy people. It is only by letting go of our anger, resentment, or judgments towards others that we can be at peace with ourselves, and perhaps also at peace with them. And that means forgiving them.

In my own life, I have learned that peace and contentment come only when I have given up my point of view. I was reminded of this just this morning, because I had been turning over a dispute over and over again in my mind for several days, and was very troubled about how to prevail in the dispute, and this morning I realized that what was most troubling about the arguments that kept going through my head was that I felt mean and petty as I voiced them in my head. To be at peace, I need to let go of my emotions towards my opponents and forgive them.

So forgiveness is not something we do for others, but something we do for ourselves. Its purpose is our spiritual peace, and our salvation.